The first book he lent me was Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. It was small and not thick, with a cream-coloured, cloth-covered binding and yellowed pages that had been cut apart with a letter opener. The title was embossed in the top right-hand corner of the front cover, picked out in gold, with little medallions of birds in flight on either side. I could have slid it into my coat pocket.
‘First edition, that,’ he said, with a sniff, flicking ash from the end of a slightly flaccid cigarette.
I held it more carefully. ‘Really?’
He sniffed and nodded again. ‘Yep. Worth about four grand, I reckon.’
‘Gee, Geoff,’ I said, ‘are you sure it’s okay for me to borrow it?’
‘Sure, sure,’ he said.
‘Well I’ll be very careful.’
He nodded again, crushed out his cigarette under the heel of his shoe, and shuffled off into the rain.
We’d been speaking under the awning of the Job Centre, which was hidden down a narrow alley, just off the high street. Geoff worked as a gardener for the council, and he was often clearing up the churchyard down the end of the alley when I took my lunch break. We’d sometimes sit and smoke together. I hated my job, and I often envied him, pulling weeds and planting bulbs among the crooked graves. But lately the weather had turned cold, and now I tried to cut our lunchtime chats short, eager to get back to my desk, which had a radiator tucked under it to keep my knees warm.
We normally talked about the football, or current affairs. Geoff always had a newspaper tucked into his gardening tools trolley, and he’d begin each conversation the same way – a flicking gesture of the wrist and fingers, a snort of derision, and an elaborate eye-roll which called his whole head in to complete the motion. He did this no matter what the headline was. Political news, some terror attack somewhere, big storms, appearances by the Queen. It all left him completely cold. He wasn’t much older than me, but his face was lined, from smoking and exposure to the weather.
He kept a small FM radio clipped to his belt, and sometimes when I walked past I could hear voices coming from it, tinny and small like the radio hosts were stuck inside the radio’s plastic case. He listened to the BBC – Radio 4 mostly, sometimes Radio 3. He told me that he voted Labour but was no longer a party member.
We started to talk about books the first time we went to the pub together. It was a Friday, and I was sneaking out early. I was fed up. The strip lights in the office were grey, and they made the faces of the people who filed past my desk grey too. They even made the backs of my hands grey. At ten to five, I couldn’t take it anymore. The office was quiet, so I packed up and left.
When I passed the churchyard at the end of the lane, Geoff had called out to me from the porch of the church. ‘You’re off early,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I felt stupid, I felt like I should explain myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I pushed the poppers on the front of my mac together and shoved my hands into the pockets.
‘Fancy a pint?’ he asked.
I nearly said no. ‘Why not?’
We went to the pub around the corner. It wasn’t crowded yet, and it was full of warm, yellow light and the smell of chip oil. An old place, it was lined with blackened wood panelling and led light windows. We sat at a table in the corner, in the crook of the fireplace. I could feel the heat coming off the bricks and I slid my chair back so I could press my shoulders against them.
‘You worked in that place long?’ he asked.
I shrugged. ‘A year or so. Not so long.’
‘Do you like it?’
I laughed. ‘No. Not at all.’
He was drinking stout from a squat pint glass. His fingers were big, swollen from the cold, and had lots of little nicks and cuts in them. His nails were short and rounded, with a thin line of brown soil trapped under them.
‘I don’t know what people like you do all day,’ he said.
I laughed again. ‘Me neither.’
I felt a bit awkward. I didn’t know why I was there. I’d said yes to the drink on a whim, and now here I was, with Geoff and a whole pint’s worth of time to fill.
‘Do you read?’ he asked suddenly.
‘Are you a reader?’
‘Do you mean at work?’
‘No, I mean, do you read books. For pleasure?’
‘Oh,’ I said in surprise. ‘Yes. Yes, I read a fair bit.’
‘Do you like it?’
‘Love it, actually,’ I said. I took a sip of my beer, struggling to transpose myself into this new conversation. ‘I did English at college.’
‘Did you now?’ he smiled with approval. His teeth in the middle were crooked and black. ‘It’s good for a man to read.’
‘Are you a reader?’
‘I like books,’ he said. ‘I collect them. You should see my place. Full of books. I’m out of shelf space now. I’m filling the cupboards.’
I felt embarrassed, wondering what he’d make of my own bookshelves, two in number, both made from flat-pack chipboard with a white veneer. I’d assembled them with Allen keys and swearing. There were two empty shelves remaining, down the bottom, where I stored documents and bills and my dress shoes which I kept inside their cardboard box. I bought most of my books from a stall on the market where paperbacks were stacked along a table, spine side up. I bought at a rate of about three volumes per month.
I left the pub having received, and accepted, the offer of a loan of one of his books, ‘something good and special,’ he said. I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether ‘special’ meant a novel which had particularly touched him, or pornography. And that was how I came to be holding a copy of the first edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. Geoff handed it over and shuffled quickly away.
It was wrapped in a plastic sleeve of the kind you use to put sheets into ring binders without putting holes in the margin. He’d folded the plastic over so the book was completely encased. I was glad it was wrapped up – I didn’t want to damage it, and a soft rain was falling, blurring my view of the cover. I tucked the book down into my rucksack and cycled home through the wet.
When I got there, I cleared everything off the kitchen table – my coffee cup and porridge bowl from that morning, the little pile of papers I always allowed to accumulate up one end, my laptop, and a small potted aloe vera plant. I dusted the table for crumbs, sprayed it and wiped it down, scuffing with the cloth at odd little spots of something. I’d never cleaned the table properly in all the time I’d lived there. Those sticky spots might have been years old.
Then I went into the bathroom and washed my hands with soap, before drying them carefully on a clean towel. When I returned, the table was dry and gleaming. All the same, I laid down a clean tea towel. Carefully, I unfolded the plastic sleeve and eased the book out. I rested its spine against the table, cradling the front and back boards with my hands, then let it fall open where it wished, before gently flicking back to the front.
I turned to the first page and started to read, and I didn’t stop until I had finished the whole book. It felt like running down a gentle grassy slope. My fingers tingled where they held the pages, my heart raced.
I can only have sat there for a few hours. When I finished, I think I cried a bit, but I don’t really remember. I was full of energy. My knees bounced under the table so I got up and walked in circles around the table, too excited to stay still. After a while, I raced down to the off-licence across the street and bought a bottle of wine. The whole time I was out, I kept glancing over my shoulder at the front door of the house, terrified someone would nip in while I was gone and take the book.
When I got back, I sat at the kitchen table and gazed at the book while I drank the whole bottle of wine. The cover seemed to glow in the dimness of the kitchen, and I fancied I could smell the pages, like leaf mould and toast and dust on a hot radiator. I was still there when the dawn came. I called in sick at work and finally, when the sun was high, went to bed and slept a little.
I didn’t want to give the book back right away. I kept it for about a week, sitting it on the table where I could look at it in the evenings, and slipping it into the bottom of my sock drawer, underneath the liner, during the day when I was at work. I was terrified that something would happen to it. In the end, that’s what made me give it back, I think. I couldn’t cope with the stress of holding it anymore.
I took it back to him one afternoon as he sat in the porch of the church. He had his headphones in, listening to the radio, so I took care not to startle him.
‘What did you think?’ he asked.
‘It was just wonderful.’
He smiled. ‘I’ll bring you another one soon,’ he said.
Geoff was as good as his word. About every fortnight, he brought me a book. Always a first edition, normally something Victorian, a mixture of novels and poetry. I devoured those books, taking them in a single sitting if I could. I couldn’t take time off work every time he gave me a new one, so often I’d hide the books from myself until Friday evening when I could sit as long as I wanted.
My reading setup got more sophisticated. The first thing I bought was an old wing-back armchair. Then I went out and bought a plank of unvarnished pine which I had cut so it would sit across the arms of the chair, like a little reading desk. On top of the wood, I put a bath towel, folded in thirds, to cushion the spines.
On Fridays when there was a new book, I’d be restless at work all day, and then I’d rush home, dump my rucksack and my coat at the door, turn up the thermostat and get into my chair, settling the book down into its nest as I settled into mine. Then I’d read, all through Friday, and often a fair way into Saturday.
I read these books differently from how I’d read in the past. My own shelves were full of paperbacks. I wrote my name on the flyleaves and made notes in the margins, not always in pencil.
But I went slowly with Geoff’s books. I let them seduce me. I’d spend time looking at the cover, which meant I’d spend time thinking about the title. I’d imagine all the other people who’d read this text, in this volume or in others. The sameness of our experience was intoxicating. Sometimes, sitting in my armchair, those other readers felt so close I could count their eyelashes, see the pores of their skin. There was an almost erotic charge to the idea that they’d read the same words in the same order as me.
Although he was responsible for these heady experiences, I didn’t seem able to talk to Geoff about the books in the way I wanted. We discussed about tooling and gilding and damage to the boards. We talked about paper quality and marbling and how much we both liked it when there was printing in more than one colour. But if I tried to talk about the story in any way, he would clam up, like I’d offended him. Eventually, I stopped asking.
I loved them, but none of the volumes ever came close to that first experience with De Profundis. I would never recapture the feeling of that rapturous night when the words had poured out of the little, cream-coloured volume straight into me. It haunted me: I woke up, sometimes, with phrases on my tongue, and I would whisper them to myself as I waited for the kettle to boil in the little kitchenette at work, chant them to myself as I cycled home.
One Wednesday, I was rounding the corner towards the supermarket when Geoff called to me from behind. He was standing in the shadow of a big industrial bin. He beckoned me over.
‘You ok, Geoff?’ I asked.
He nodded quickly. ‘I need a bit of help,’ he said.
He pulled a creased envelope out of his pocket and unfolded it, extracting the letter inside. It was a single sheet with the council logo in one upper corner, and Geoff’s name and address in the other. Underneath was a brief message.
‘Can you take a look at this and tell me what it’s about?’ he asked.
I scanned the letter. It explained that roadworks near Geoff’s property were about to begin. It warned that the repair work would cause disruption to traffic, and some noise during business hours. It informed residents that if they had any concerns they could phone the council offices or visit at specific times. I relayed all this to Geoff.
He relaxed, visibly. He thanked me, and he wandered off into the dark.
Late that night, when I was back home and had climbed into bed I lay awake, again, because of Geoff, thinking of all the books in his house. I pictured them sitting on the shelves, silent and unopened, and of Geoff, wandering from room to room, looking at them.